Binh Danh

Binh Danh (MFA Stanford; BFA San Jose State University) emerged as an artist of national importance with work that investigates his Vietnamese heritage and our collective memory of war. His technique incorporates his invention of the chlorophyll printing process, in which photographic images appear embedded in leaves through the action of photosynthesis. His newer body of work focuses on nineteenth-century photographic processes, applying them in an investigation of battlefield landscapes and contemporary memorials. A recent series of daguerreotypes celebrated the United States National Park system during its anniversary year. His work is in the permanent collections of the National Gallery of Art, the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art, The DeYoung Museum, the Philadelphia Museum of Art, the Center for Creative Photography, the George Eastman Museum, and many others. He received the 2010 Eureka Fellowship from the Fleishhacker Foundation, and in 2012 he was a featured artist at the 18th Biennale of Sydney in Australia. He is represented by Haines Gallery, San Francisco, CA and Lisa Sette Gallery in Phoenix, AZ. He lives and works in San Jose, CA and teaches photography at San Jose State University.

circa 2018
CitizenshipUnited States
Light Work RelationshipArtist-in-Residence, 2006
Main Gallery, 2007
Light Work PublicationsContact Sheet 142
Contact Sheet 143




When we die, our bodies may be buried, cremated, or embalmed, yet the age-old question of what happens to our soul after death remains.  Across cultures throughout the centuries, death has consistently inhabited a space that invokes both mystery and profundity.  Through explanations of salvation or reincarnation, varying responses to what happens to the immaterial spirit continue to invoke either dogmatic or open-ended answers amongst us all.  Although our physical form may wither away to carbon and dust, we still don’t really know what happens to the essence of ourselves—the accumulated memories, the aggregated experiences, the stored up activities and behaviors that helped to define each of us as individual beings. 

Binh Danh has gained prominent recognition for his unique method of developing images in plant material by harnessing the power of sunlight to exploit the natural process of photosynthesis to produce his pieces, letting the sun do its work in the same manner a darkroom enlarger would.  It sometimes takes weeks or months for images to emerge, depending on the specific properties of the leaf or grass that he uses as canvas for a particular piece. Once the desired contrast is achieved, he immerses the plant material into clear acrylic resin, freezing the image in time as specimens to be viewed and contemplated.

Danh is part of a generation of Vietnamese who came to this country in the aftermath of the Vietnam War.  He came to the US as a child with his family in the 1970s, and returned to visit Vietnam only several years ago as a young adult. Like many born during and after that era, the Vietnam War is a distant memory, highly mediated through history textbooks and mass media.  Yet, by directly seeing and walking on the landscape of his birth country, Danh could intimately comprehend history on another level—the brutal legacy of war and the thousands of individuals, both Vietnamese and American, who perished on that land.  What happened to the physical bodies is harrowingly undeniable—mass graves, rows of body bags, corpses strewn on country roads.  Yet the question of where the spirits of these people went remains in the world of the enigmatic and unknown. It is through his work that Danh approaches these inexplicable questions.  He positions a visual world that wonders if the land could serve as witness to the passing of life, to the transit of souls—if the landscape could literally absorb the essence of those who died upon it, compelling those of us still here to remember and bear witness to the unseen passing of lives.  The imprint of war becomes physically manifest.

Danh’s significant body of work dealing with those who perished on both sides of the war does more than simply memorialize and pay respect to the dead—it raises a number of questions about the nature of life and the possibility of afterlife.  In his new series, he combines his own childhood memories of the Swamp Thing 1 within larger themes of death and resurrection.  The Swamp Thing centers around the story of scientist Dr. Alec Holland, who was working in the Louisiana swamps on a bio-restorative formula designed to promote crop growth and end world hunger.  After an explosion covered his body with burning chemicals, Holland escaped from the laboratory and fell into the waters of the swamp.  His chemical-covered body decomposed and was ingested by the plant life in the swamp, which subsequently developed sentience and began not only to resemble Dr. Holland’s body as a hideous, humanoid plant creature, but also to possess his memory and personality. He was no longer a human who had been turned into a plant, but rather a plant that had tried to become Dr. Holland.

The juxtaposition of these two series, one based in the larger context of American popular culture and one based in the larger context of American history, creates an open-ended narrative that looks at the questions of life and death, of corporeality and immateriality, and the fundamental notions of where the essence of ourselves resides.

Kevin B. Chen

1. First introduced as a comic book character in the early 1970s by DC Comics, the Swamp Thing became the focus of a long-running horror-fantasy comic book series of the same name, as well as two full-length films, a live-action television series, and a short-lived animated cartoon series.  A moderate collection of merchandise was also produced for the cartoon and television series, including action figures, stickers, and a board game, which Danh began to collect along with movie posters and issues of the comic book series.

Binh Danh lives in San Jose, CA.  He participated in Light Work’s Artist-in-Residence program in October 2006. 

Kevin B. Chen is an artist and curator living in the San Francisco Bay Area.  He is the program director for visual arts at Intersection for the Arts, one of the oldest alternative non-profit art spaces in the country.

Un/Common Threads

In organizing the exhibition "Un/Common Threads: Selections from the Light Work Collection," curator Kaylen Williams went beyond a superficial perception of diversity that has become pervasive in the United States. As a 2007 study by the sociology department at University of Minnesota revealed, many Americans happily endorse diversity as a nebulous concept; however, many are still at a loss to discuss the specifics of diversity and its related sub-topics, such as gender, race, ethnicity, economic status, and sexual orientation. (1) "Un/Common Threads" harnessed the power of photographs, using a visual language to voice these all-important specifics of diversity. Williams used the visual language that coalesced among the various images to stimulate dialogue about the complex challenges of a pluralist culture in ways that addressed both broad and personal implications.

Exhibiting together the work of artists such as Myra Greene, Dawoud Bey, Clarissa Sligh, Yuri Marder, Hank Willis Thomas, and Binh Danh, among others, certainly highlighted the individuality of their concerns and aesthetic choices. Yet this varied grouping also served a common goal by giving voice to specific, possibly contentious topics surrounding diversity. To emphasize this unity of purpose, Williams combined the “Un/” in the exhibition title with “Common Threads,” acknowledging the connections that can occur between diverse artists and the viewers of their work.

Many of the photographs in "Un/Common Threads" manage to evoke the idea of connections and also simultaneously turn it on its head by asking viewers to re-examine preconceptions that they may bring with them into the gallery. Ellen M. Blalock’s photograph, "Jermane," a portrait of a black teenage father pictured full-frame in an intimate embrace with his baby daughter, may provide a good example of this phenomenon. Those who find themselves jarred by the tender presence of emotion displayed by the young African American father must question and explore the sources of any biases regarding age, race, and gender. This is the inherent power of such photographs—when a viewer accepts involvement in questioning such preconceived connections, he or she is more inclined to get involved in talk of answers that can lead to a deeper understanding of identity and diversity.

Many of the artists whose work curator Kaylen Williams, a graduate student of Museum Studies in the College of Visual and Performing Arts, Syracuse University, selected for "Un/Common Threads" engaged the topic of diversity from a personal perspective. Regarding her impetus for organizing the exhibition, Williams explains, “This project was of particular interest to me because of my own ethnic background of Japanese and Western European ancestors. Many students on campus are, like me, a mix of diverse cultural backgrounds. My Japanese mother was adopted by Americans and never had an opportunity or the encouragement to explore her racial identity.” In culling this selection of images from the Light Work Collection, Williams invited viewers of Un/Common Threads to explore the diversity of identity and to participate in the critical mass that follows an expansion of consciousness.

Laura A. Guth (c)2008

1. Joyce M. Bell and Douglas Hartmann, “Diversity in Everyday Discourse: The Cultural Ambiguities and Consequences of ‘Happy Talk.’” American Sociological Association: American Sociological Review 72, no. 6 (December 2007): 895–914.
The exhibition was on view in the Robert B. Menschel Photography Gallery from January 16 to April 19, 2007. It was curated by Kaylen Williams. The exhibition included work by the following artists: Don Gregorio Antón, Dawoud Bey, Ellen M. Blalock, Binh Dahn, Sylvia de Swaan, Lonnie Graham, Myra Greene, Saiman Li, Yuri Marder, Nzingah Muhammad, Osamu James Nakagawa, Suzanne Opton, Kanako Sasaki, Clarissa Sligh, Tone Stockenström, Lida Suchý, Hank Willis Thomas, Linn Underhill, and Carrie Mae Weems.

When she curated the exhibition, Kaylen Williams was a graduate student of Museum Studies in the College of Visual and Performing Arts, Syracuse University. She graduated in 2007.

Laura A. Guth is an artist and educator. She lives in Manlius, NY.